05 / 06

How Could God Know the Future?

Closer to Truth interviews William Lane Craig

Time : 00:06:47

Robert Lawrence Kuhn (host of PBS' "Closer to Truth") interviews William Lane Craig about God's foreknowledge. Questions explored: Is it impossible for God to know the future? What are some models of God knowing the future? How does A-theory and B-theory relate to God's knowledge of the future? What is perceptual knowledge? What is cenceptual knowledge? Why can't God have peceptual knowledge? What is meant by innate knowledge of the future?

Transcript (Part 1)

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: One of the characteristics of the traditional Judeo-Christian God is that he knows the future. That seems to us normal, mortal people as impossible. Is it impossible?


Dr. Craig: No, I don’t think that’s at all impossible, and I think there are a variety of models that one could use to explain how God knows the future.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: What are some examples?


Dr. Craig: Well, one way to do it very easily would be if you adopted a theory of time according to which all events in time are equally real—that the difference between past, present, and future is merely an illusion of human consciousness. On this sort of view of reality, the future is as real as the past, and they all exist equally robustly and are therefore available for God to know.

So, if God simply exists outside this space-time manifold, he can see in a metaphorical way, everything that transpires in the manifold. So, if you adopt this view of reality as a four-dimensional space-time block, foreknowledge is very, very easy to explain.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Suppose though God is not outside of time, but exists in time with us. Then how does he see the future?


Dr. Craig: Well, that’s a very interesting way of putting the question. How does he “see” the future, you said. And I think, Robert, that that betrays a presupposition that God’s knowledge is akin or analogous to perceptual knowledge. And on this view we think of God’s knowledge of the future as some sort of foresight—that he looks ahead and sees what’s going to happen, and that’s how he knows it. This kind of perceptual approach to God’s knowledge, I think, does run into real problems if you have a view of time according to which temporal becoming is a real and objective feature of reality.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Because it hasn’t happened yet.


Dr. Craig: Because there is no reality to look ahead and see. But I think that construing God’s foreknowledge on the model of perception is just completely wrong. When you think about God, that’s terribly anthropomorphic in any case—God’s knowledge of mathematical truths or ethical truths isn’t based on anything like perception. Rather, I would adopt what we could call a conceptualist model of God’s foreknowledge rather than a perceptualist model.

A conceptualist model of God’s foreknowledge would be more on the analogy of innate ideas. Persons like Plato, for example, thought that we have innate knowledge of certain truths and that education is not really acquiring or learning new truths, but simply bringing to consciousness this innate knowledge that we already have.

Now, while that may not be a very plausible model for human knowledge, I think it’s entirely plausible in the case of God, that God has innately the essential property of knowing only and all true propositions. And so the way he knows the future is not by looking ahead and seeing what’s going to happen, it’s simply by knowing the truth value of all propositions. He knows which are true and which are false—that includes future tense statements. And so, by knowing the truth value of future tense statements, God knows what’s going to happen.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: It sounds like that is philosophical meanderings.


Dr. Craig: Oh, really?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: [Laughs] But are those events real? They’re not real until then . . .


Dr. Craig: Oh no, they’re not. But the idea that they have to be real in order to be known is based upon this assumption of a perceptualist model of divine cognition. And that’s, as I say, very anthropomorphic to think of God as sort of up there looking down and seeing what’s going to happen.

Rather, God as an unembodied mind doesn’t really have anything like perceptions, because he has no sense organs when you think about it. So, God’s knowledge is more like the knowledge of an innate, infinite mind which has the essential property of knowing only and all true propositions.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: What does that mean though, if God knows innately something that I may or may not do in the future?


Dr. Craig: What that means is that one of those statements is true: Either you will eat pizza tomorrow for lunch, or you will not eat pizza tomorrow for lunch. One of those statements is true and one is false, because they’re contradictories. [1]

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Right.

Dr. Craig: And God has the essential property of knowing which of those is true and which is false. He knows the truth value of all propositions. And if you are enamored with this perceptualist model of perception—

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: You go back to the other.


Dr. Craig: Well, no. What I’ll say in that case is that propositions exist in the present, and so God can just look at the proposition and see what its truth value is in the same way that he can look at a dog and see what color the dog is. It has the property of being brown rather than the property of being white. God can look at these propositions and see which ones have the value true and which have the value false.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: In the present.


Dr. Craig: Yeah, in the present, because there are presently future tense propositions, past tense propositions—God can look at them and see their truth value. Now, I think that’s completely misconceived. As I say, his knowledge isn’t like perception. But for those who are wedded to the idea of perception, they seem to have forgotten about these propositions that exist that God could look at and inspect.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Does that mean that in the theory of time that past, present, and future are all real, God could perceive everything, but in the theory that time is a becoming and the past is over and the future has not yet come, that God then has to know the future through some innate mechanism?

Dr. Craig: I think that the analogy of perception works on the tenseless view of time, where everything is equally real, but that analogy of perception is flawed when it comes to the view of time as dynamic. [2]

Transcript (Part 2)

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Bill, as I think of God and I think of God’s omniscience and I think of my own life, I feel that I’m in control of what I can ask you. I can ask you one question or another question. But traditional theology said God has absolutely determined the future or everything is settled. Is my ability to ask you one question or another settled in God’s mind?

Dr. Craig: Well, I think that really depends, Robert, on what you mean by settled, and different theologians have different views of exactly what that means. For example, there are those who would follow John Calvin and Augustine in thinking that God’s foreknowledge is based on his foreordination—that because God has decreed that everything that happens will come to pass, therefore he foreknows it, so that his foreknowledge is based upon his predestination of everything that happens. And that would remove, I think, significant human freedom.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: So, God knows that I’m going to do something basically because he made it such that I would?

Dr. Craig: That’s correct; he’s determined it.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Okay, that’s one possibility.

Dr. Craig: That’s one possibility. Another possibility—perhaps the other extreme—would be to say that God doesn’t know the future and doesn’t determine it, and therefore he gambles in creating human beings with free will because he doesn’t know how they’re going to react, and God takes risks. He knows probabilities, but he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, and he rolls the dice, so to speak, and hopes that things turn out for the best, and he works himself to try to make them turn out for the best.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: The future is open?

Dr. Craig: Yes, not only is the future open on this view, but there aren’t even any truths about the future that can be known by God, and God doesn’t in any way abridge human freedom or control human beings. And, as I say, he just doesn’t have any knowledge of what’s going to happen apart from what he could infer from present causes that exist, in the same way that you and I have a degree of foreknowledge of what’s going to happen in the immediate future from present causes.

But the farther you get into the future, the less you know. And similarly, with God, he really doesn’t know how it’s going to turn out on this open view. So that would be the far extreme from the other end.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: That sounds more exciting to me—not knowing what’s going to happen.

Dr. Craig: Well, remember that in the quest for truth, we have to be very careful that we don’t pick what appeals to us as what we think to be true.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Fair enough, fair enough. [Laughs]

Dr. Craig: And I do think this is a real problem in this area. People want to create a God who is appealing to them, and therefore they tailor image their God to fit what they find exciting.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: [Laughs] We all do that. Alright, so we’ve defined two boundary conditions—

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: We’ve defined the preordination where God knows the future because he’s preordained it—basically he’s making it happen.

Dr. Craig: Right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: The other boundary condition is that the future is open; God really does not know in detail or anything what’s going to happen. He has probabilities.

Dr. Craig: Right, and notice that these are actually rather close to each other. It’s not like they’re two different ends of a line; they’re more like a circle that come back around because they’re actually very close to each other. Both of these views agree that the only way God could know the future is if he determines it.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Right.

Dr. Craig: And so there’s actually a rather common assumption behind both of these views.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: And that’s a free will kind of question, so in both cases they both recognize the fact that if God predetermines something, basically that’s the way he knows it.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that’s correct. And so, when those who hold to this openness view are confronted with examples of God’s foreknowledge of the future, you find they collapse back into the foreordination view. They say, “Well, not everything is free. Some things are predetermined by God.”

Well, any biblical Christian, then, is left with the view that Peter was determined by God to deny Christ, that poor Judas was determined by God to betray Jesus, which certainly ought to leave one feeling very uncomfortable that these people were determined by God to do sinful acts. It makes God the author of evil.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Not only them, but everybody who’s sinned.

Dr. Craig: Well, not everybody because you remember some views on the openness view, God doesn’t know a lot of this.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Sure, on the predetermined view.

Dr. Craig: But with respect to the Judas and the Peter example you see in Scripture, Jesus predicts that these events are going to happen. He knows they’re going to happen. And so, the openness people, because they say the only way you can know the future is if it’s determined, have to say God determined that Judas would betray Jesus and Peter betray Christ. [3] So, they’re really bedfellows with these determinists because they both agree the only way God can foreknow the future is by determining it himself.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Alright, now what’s in the middle?

Dr. Craig: What’s in the middle are a couple of different views. One would be the simple foreknowledge view, which would say that God doesn’t determine the future, there is genuine freewill of human beings, but that God knows what will happen in advance—so that God’s knowledge, though chronologically prior to the event, is logically posterior to the event. God’s knowledge doesn’t determine the event, it’s the event that determines what God foreknows.

So on this model, God’s knowledge of the future is rather like an infallible barometer of the weather. The barometer will always be right because it’s infallible, but the barometer doesn’t determine the weather. Whichever way the weather would be is what the barometer would indicate.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: It sounds like reverse causation—causation in a backward direction.

Dr. Craig: Now, that’s a very perceptive remark, because I think it does have the same sort of effects or implications as backward causation. And it’s very interesting that in scientific literature, quite apart from these debates and theology, there are debates about backward causation, time travel, relativity theory, and so forth that arrive at similar conclusions that just because something is in the future doesn’t mean that it is determined by what happens in the present. Rather, the way the present is could be because these things will go differently in the future.

Now, in the case of foreknowledge, I don’t think it’s a causal relationship. It’s not like our choices cause God to believe something. But it is rather that our choices determine how certain propositions are true or false and God being omniscient knows only and all true propositions. And so, in that sense, his knowledge is logically posterior to our actions.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: The difference between the simple foreknowledge and the preordained foreknowledge is that in the preordained case, God is making it happen. In the simple foreknowledge case, he’s just perceiving it in some way.

Dr. Craig: That’s correct. In the simple foreknowledge case, there is genuine human freedom, and God simply knows how agents will freely choose. And if they were to choose differently, then he would have different foreknowledge.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: But in both cases, it’s 100 percent absolute, no exceptions, God knows, end of story.

Dr. Craig: Right. But the one is consistent with the ability to do otherwise, and the other one isn’t.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Yes, okay. Anything else?

Dr. Craig: Well, there’s a fourth view that we haven’t talked about, and that’s the view called middle knowledge. And it adds a sort of extra explanatory dimension to the simple foreknowledge view by explaining how God has knowledge of the future with respect to free actions. And what it holds is that prior to God’s decision to create the world, God knows how any free creature would freely choose in any circumstances God might place him in.

So, by choosing to create certain circumstances and put certain creatures in them, God’s foreknowledge comes as a result. He knows exactly, then, how that creature will behave because he knew what that creature would do if he were in those circumstances. So, this gives God foreknowledge of the future on the basis of his knowledge of how persons would freely choose in any circumstances they might be placed in.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: That seems to give a slightly bigger opening for free will.

Dr. Craig: Well, I don’t think so, Robert. I think both of them are entirely consistent with human free will.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Both in the simple foreknowledge and middle knowledge.

Dr. Craig: And middle knowledge. But what the middle knowledge approach does offer is an explanation of God’s providential control over human history without abridging human freedom. It shows how it is that God can plan a universe which will ultimately arrive at his ends through the free decisions of creatures.

In opposition to that, the simple foreknowledge view has the rather odd consequence that God must be totally surprised, in a sense, at the way things turn out. He knows the way they will turn out, but that’s not a result of his planning it, because there isn’t any logically prior moment at which he says, “Here’s the way everyone would behave in all these different circumstances, so I’m going to create these circumstances, put these people in them, and that way I know what’s going to happen.” Instead he just sort of wakes up, as it were, and finds himself with knowledge of the future and of the way everything will be, but there isn’t any account of how he got this sort of knowledge and of his providence over human history.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Now, that makes it sound like there’s less free will in a sense in that argument.

Dr. Craig: In which one?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn: In the middle knowledge argument, because then God is choosing the world in which he knows what would happen, and so that seems to constrain human free will more than in the simple foreknowledge if he just wakes up and knows what’s happening.

Dr. Craig: Yes, well I think that what you’re discerning is that this is truly a mediating position between the extremes. The determinists say, “This allows too much human freedom, because God doesn’t determine how the persons will act in these circumstances.” The open theists say, “This is too deterministic because God is the one who chooses which world it is.” And I find myself comfortably in the middle between the two, saying that it affirms both divine sovereignty and human freedom.

One defender of this middle knowledge point of view put it in this way—it sounds paradoxical, but I think so nicely captures it—he says it is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined, but it is up to us whether we are predestined in a world in which we find ourselves. [4]

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    Total Running Time: 6:48

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    Theodore Regnon, Bannesianisme et Molinisme (Paris: Retaux-Bray, 1890), p. 48.

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    Total Running Time: 11:30